|He trusted them|
RPG books: what are they good for? The question has recently been raised multiple times; by Joseph Manola in a blog post, by noisms in a response to that blog post, and in several increasingly irate blog comments by Kent. Whether they were meant that way or not, all of these posts challenge a central notion of this blog – that role-playing publications should be rooted in actual play, and be designed very specifically with actual play in mind. My common challenge to the readers is “Do you even play?” (I am looking at you guys – this means YOU, Kent!), and I mean it – I have been beating this drum for more than a decade. Their challenge, on the other hand, is “Is your stuff even played?”, and whether it is a general or a specific ‘you’, they are right.
A lot of RPG books, play-oriented or not, are never used in play – at least not the way they are published. While I play regularly, I mostly run my own stuff, and use premade modules for one-offs and the occasional mini-campaign. I review modules with an emphasis on playability, but I sure don’t play most of them. I preach homebrewing and the DIY gospel, and yet I publish stuff for others (which they don’t play). Hoisted by my own petard! And right at the point when I’d venture out into the wild to publish a fanzine!
Nevertheless, while these fine people make good points (not just in describing the reality of the RPG scene, but also in describing how books are “mined” for inspiration, or used for vicarious entertainment), I do not believe I am in the wrong. Instead, I want to return to a slogan pioneered by T. Foster – “Creativity aid, not creativity replacement” – and another one by Mythmere – “Imagine the hell out of it!” Of course, they were restating and refining a point originally made by Bob Bledsaw all the way back: “All within are merely inspiration for the active and pontifical judges of the guild. Please alter, illuminate, expand, modify, extrapolate, interpolate, shrink, and further manipulate all contained to suit the tenor of your campaign.”
These mottoes articulate something about the flexibility of good game materials. Every game table creates a distinct, individual experience, something completely contrary to the carefully designed and professionally produced, but homogenised mass entertainment of our age. Even if we are creating the same kind of tales, every group of us creates them slightly differently. This variety and human element can be a liability with bad players (which is why some games erroneously try to safeguard us from bad game experiences through limiting rules), but it is one of the big things about RPGs in good company. No professional design can replace the magical unpredictability of co-creation, even if awkward and imperfect. It cannot be reliably bottled and replicated. Worse, trying to accurately reconstruct a spontaneously unfolding campaign will result in a structure that is at once rigid (because it doesn’t admit group tampering) and fragile (because the wrong move can shatter it); one that lacks the temporal dimension of a gradually forming campaign, as well as its evolutionary quality. This is the reason early TSR didn’t believe in the idea of packaged modules (and renowned module author Rob Kuntz still doesn’t) until Wee Warriors and Judges Guild broke the ice.
And yet good RPG supplements undoubtedly exist. They are the ones which lead to memorable adventures, great campaigns, and the kind of war stories you remember even after the campaign has been over and the group has long dissolved. It is about the supplements which spur your creativity and engage with your imagination. The random hook that hijacks the campaign. Doing things differently from the written text is not a bug, it is a feature. Repurposing a supplement and doing an extensive reimagination is a sign of respect, not disrespect. Of course, good game books also have to be particular. They need to bring something interesting to the table that wouldn’t occur to the GM – a new frame of thinking, an aesthetic which was previously missing from the campaign, encounters slightly outside the group’s comfort zone. The best of them combine the two aspects: “Wow! I haven’t thought of that!” and then: “Now what if I added penguins?”
|Tomes of ancient wisdom or unwieldy junk?|
Spurring creativity is tricky. It is a fine line to walk, somewhere between a complete blank slate that tells nothing and gives you nothing concrete (the proverbial pad of white paper you can scribble anything on), and a dense structure which provides all the details for you, but takes over and gives you a novel where you and your group are both reduced to passive observers. This is, precisely, where structure and form matter. There are many ways of being inspired – people are inspired by fluff books, written game reports and all kinds of odd things (I have mostly sworn off fantasy and get my ideas from a steady diet of nonfiction and the daily news) – but where actual table use is concerned, there is existing good practice and there is a whole lot of bad practice. For the latter, you only need to look at the output of the larger PF and 5e publishers – they may pass as interesting bog reading, but put them on the table, and they are a bloated, lumbering mess full of encounters which read well but play terribly. For the former, there are some well-tested standards (like the good old location key or the relationship map), and some promising experiments (like hypertexting or the layout thingamajigs a bunch of people are into), and while the rest can be fairly good for inspiration and ideas, they are not directly suitable for running a game. It is no accident old-schoolers running their own campaigns value good information design and an expressive terseness: this is an approach which works, and works very well.
And here is where the old-school scene (or movement, or whatever) comes in. Our primary mission is not to produce interesting bog reading – although it is a possible side-effect. Our mission is to cultivate a certain idea of playing and running games, to disseminate its practices, to inspire others and be inspired. It is a creative community built on the exchange of ideas; that is, it is centred on discussion. All the publishing that grew up around it is secondary, and if it fell into pieces today, we would still be here tomorrow. (This is also why I see clear dangers in the OSR’s move from a DIY-oriented landscape to a much more consumption-oriented one.) The blog posts, forum threads, shared practice and, yes, supplements are part of that conversation, even if they are not immediately put to use. The goal is to let us improve our own games (which can mean different things for different people), and share our ideas with others so they might improve their own. This is our call to arms.
When it comes to actually publishing something, play-relevant, properly playtested supplements are key, because they spread the ideas of good gaming, and they have stood the test of table use. It works in the reverse direction, too: bad RPG books encourage dull play, inhibit creativity, and reduce us to passive consumers. Publishers can get away with it and even thrive for a while, but it will create a moribund gameing scene which will stagnate and eventually wither away (case in point, much of the Hungarian gaming scene). It matters to those of us who play! We should have safeguards against that happening. First and foremost, we should play, because that’s where the core of the hobby is. Second, we should discuss play: this is where a lot of things from forums to blogs to G+ come in. Third, we should support play: and support it with useable, well-thought-out, accessible materials, which do not fill in all the blanks, but support others in running their campaigns or trying interesting one-shots. Fourth, there is no fourth point. That’s all we need.
Have old-school products served their purpose in reintroducing a certain idea of playing and designing RPGs, and exploring the directions they can be taken? In a sense, yes. There is not much to be gained from another Swords & Wizardry, and perhaps not much more from a new restatement of Keep on the Borderlands (unless it is done in a particularly insightful way by someone who really gets it!), even if they will continue to inspire newer and newer home games across generations and editions. But – as it is evident from the state of gaming discourse beyond our small thought bubble, and from the quality of even many ostensible old-school products – there is still much to be done in doing interesting new things with our ideas, and spreading them through well-written and useful products which help, not replace or obstruct.
Finally, another point: sometimes good ideas have to be reiterated to remind us and let us refocus on what matters to us, or for the sake of new people. And this brings us back to the raison d’être of – no, not game products this time – old-school gaming itself.
Thank you for this thoughtful essay- It makes me introspective on my own writing sins. It spurs me to brave forums where I usually don't go, and, before publishing, get my next thing playtested/reviewed by people who don't know me.ReplyDelete
Nice post (and not just because it name-drops me, though of course that doesn't hurt...). It took me a while to realize (mostly because I was - and still am - guilty of it) that there's a second level of meta rpg-product-reading-as-fiction that isn't about the story within the product but is about imagining playing it - thinking about what you would do if you were running this at a table and how the players would react and how things would likely turn out - which creates its own set of issues.ReplyDelete
IMO it's that perspective that has led to what feels to me like a groupthink over-fetishization of things like non-linearity and factions and big random tables. When you're reading something and imagining how it might play out, it's way more fun when what you're reading is open-ended and complex and there are tons of different possibilities and you can imagine the players engaging with it in all sorts of different ways - that 20 groups might be able to play through the same content and have 20 completely different experiences with it. But when you are actually playing 19 of those potential experiences melt away, and the one experience that actually happens to the one real, non-imaginary group needs to be good or they'll find a better way to spend their Saturday afternoons.
A linear gauntlet of challenging and memorable encounters is probably going to result in a better play-experience than an open-ended sandbox where the players' freedom of choice may well lead them to doing very boring things and coming away thinking the game sucks. Likewise, something that's easy to understand and mostly lines up with the players' understanding and expectations about how the game rules and the game-world work (i.e. the "good vanilla" concept again) is probably going to work better at the table than something off-the-wall and gonzo, even though that stuff tends to me more fun to read and dream about.
It also seems to me that this is an area which can be tricky to transmit, although I have been thinking about the same thing along slightly different tracks. Spontaneity and the kind of complex, open game structrures which happen in good sandbox gaming can't be written down as a package. It is more of a, well, Jedi thing; you must feel it and let go.Delete
For example, I had decent-to-good improvisation skills when I started gaming, and that's one of the reasons I was asked to GM. I could just run the "connective tissue" of a campaign (the thing between modules) out of my head (and sadly, that's why so much of it is just gone and forgotten). Then I was "poisoned" by TSR's junk and the dreadful GM advice that started to go around Hungary at that time, and tanked my games with heavy-handedness and overpreparation. It took a lot of "unlearning", as well as encounters with things like Gary's DMG and the JG booklets to regain an innate skill.
So it is something that comes naturally, and it is probably fairly easy to practice with the right mindset. But it can't be written down, and big, complex sandboxes with everything on the table actually become unwieldy, when what you need are launching points (which can be presented as modules!), subsystems and content generation tools. Some of these bibles include the DMG Appendices, Ready Ref Sheets, or more recently The Tome of Adventure Design and Matt's under-appreciated, OOP City Encounters.
E.g. you don't need a bunch of sea battle rules and a bunch of statted rival ships when you start a sandbox game - because why would you - you should just let it happen if the players commandeer a ship and get involved in piracy. Nor do we need those 20 options all at once - because in practice, the players are always at intersections with two or three possibilities before them (not including the potential wildcards like a completely radical new idea, or some massive stroke of luck/random chance). We need the skill to build in an organic way, but again, Jedi stuff and jazz. (And an understanding of when you do need limitations - precisely to encourage creativity!)
>>A linear gauntlet of challenging and memorable encounters is probably going to result in a better play-experience than an open-ended sandbox where the players' freedom of choice may well lead them to doing very boring things and coming away thinking the game sucks.<<Delete
My experience in practice tends to be the opposite, that no fully linear adventure is ever really that much fun for anyone. But search-for-the-fun sandboxing can have its issues too, like the GM who tried to do a convention game like that - 6 hours later we'd spent most of the convention not doing very much.
There needs to be choice, real choice, but clear, obvious, and with most options valid for a good play experience. Hence the traditional exploration based campaign dungeon with its branching passages, multiple paths and stairs going ever deeper - with no set direction of play.
This is one of the reasons for the dungeon's appeal: it presents clear, distinct choices with meaningful and often dramatic consequences. The wilderness can be much more amorphous without well-placed limits on the characters or the players, and yes, it is easy to get lost in the wealth of options.Delete
Open-ended situations set in places with distinctive geographic boundaries work fairly well, and are perhaps ideal for conventions: they focus the action while letting the players choose freely within a set of limits.
My most often used books, in order of importance:
Kard és Mágia Szörnyek és Kincsek (the monster manual part, mostly as inspiration when all I can think of if undead or wolves :D Sometimes bad ideas just stick, and I need some help for them to go away)
Red Tide/Other Dust site tags
The tome of adventure design OR Yoon-Suin (I would prefer a Yoon-Suin edition which comes in 4 separate booklets tho)
Backswords&Bucklers mission tables
If I gm'd Cyberpunk/Shadowrun, I guess I would use some kind of Mr. Johnson generator too, probably an online version.
There is a batch of 6-8 low level modules which I often use again and again for new groups (as a kind of start aid. Just scatter them around the starting location, I can run them by heart). THese are modules like Jerimond's Orb, DARkwood's secret, The sinister secret of Saltmarsh or Crucible of Freya: relatively vanilla (so easy to reskin), relatively new player friendly, and most importantly, low level.
That's pretty much it.
I buy lots of short, low level modules, but not really into campaigns or mid-high level stuff. (by the time the group reaches 3-4th level, the campaign is on it's natural course already, so no additional help needed)
One additional comment, about campaign settings.ReplyDelete
I generally prefer settings, where it is easy to insert your own stuff. Lot's of empty spaces, and near generic flavor. For this reason, my favorite I think is the Young Kingdoms from Chaosium games. It has some info where you can fall back to when needed, but most of the world is not detailed, so you can put in your favorite module without any problems.
Really specific campaign settings, of my favorite books usually don't work for me. I always thought that Lankhmar/Newhon would be nice for a home campaign. It is free in a sense, that you can put pretty much everything in it, if you want, but has some nice details which you can use if you don't have good ideas for the night. (eg. street of gods, black togas, gods of Lankhmar, etc.) But after reading all Lankhmar sourcebooks, they all turn out to be detailing the locations from the short stories, which doesn't help a bit in gming. (worst offender is tied between Ad&d 2e lankhmar and the new Savage Worlds version)
Just a quick thought before I return to your points after sleep: it has struck me that while Lankhmar is an ideal D&D setting, Lankhmar's role in D&D is better filled by City State of the Invincible Overlord, because it is both grandiose enough to feel really big, and non-specific enough in its level of detail to encourage lots of emergent gameplay. It even has a Silver Eel Tavern!Delete
I found the 3e CSIO was if anything a bit too specific for me, when I've used it in play. Whereas the 3e WoHF box set expanded to 15 miles/hex has the perfect level of detail; my Ghinarian Hills campaign has been running very successfully for years now - since the end of last year I even have several co-GMs running "S'mon's Wilderlands" along with me (same D&D meet, same day, different tables), each taking a village & surrounding area to develop as well as using towns etc further afield.Delete
Generally I agree, it is a good substitute for Lakhmar, there are lots of similarities too. However:
I find that my copy of the City State (Necromancer games, 2004) would be usable... But only if I had about 2-3 weeks to create the necessary notes from the important bits. My biggest problem with the book is that is uses dungeon format (maps with keys and NPCs) where it is not necessary, which makes the important bits harder to find.
Generally, city supplements like Vornheim or Yoon-Suin (city part) is easier for me to use.
Honestly, all my experiences are with the original CSIO, which is very badly indexed (the 1999 reprint I have is a mess because the page numbers are off), but so condensed it is easy to make sense of it. I own the NG one but by the time it came out I was losing interest in the 3.x system. Plus it has the dreadfully boring Wraith Overlord incorporated into it.Delete
NG's Wilderlands is good in that respect. I also scale up the hexes, and in a fairly similar way - my choice was 12 miles (~20 km) per hex. It worked out very well in practice.
"Honestly, all my experiences are with the original CSIO"Delete
That might be the reason, I only have the NG version. I will check if the original is available in pdf!
An immediate sin that comes to mind in that regard is that many, many commercial products are written for reviewers, not for DMs. The exuberant use of text/fluff/maps/pictures is a great indicator there, but even more so the fact that many supplements try to summon the complete picture of an idea. We are still very used to glean useful ideas out of everything we can get our hands on, so it's a trend that isn't getting much scorn. However, something I tend to come back to more and more often recently is that role-playing games are a new form of media and we need to start talking more about what that actually means. One aspect of that is that a supplement "properly" designed for use at the table, would most likely only make sense for someone who knows what a role-playing game is since he knows how to connect the dots (something that almost got agreed upon with rules, just until the ultra-light rules movement). It also would only, really shine when it is actually used.ReplyDelete
Here's an example: we are used to music scores offering meaning in films. It works so well, people don't really pay attention to it, they accept it as context. Imagine a movie without its score, it'd most likely work somehow, but the movie would lose coherence as everyone would make up his own mind about what is happening. Anyway, the point is that in the medium that is film, music takes a meaningful part by adding (or offering) context. Supplements and rules should work like that as the game manifests at the table, but as music takes words out of the equation and keeps melody and modulation to send meaning, rules and supplements add (in a way) systems and variations to alter language (my argument being that role-playing is a language based medium that alters the rules of spoken language to a degree that allows the manifestation of a responsive narrative space)! We are only at the beginning of understanding what we have at hand here and it'll take some more to form a somewhat common understanding of that (the struggle for definitions is an easy indicator here ... it seems we have no common grounds to built and grow from).
Yeah, the attempt to build a "complete picture" is often self-defeating. Few people can immediately analyse and balance a complicated, moving system - while many more can build one on their own piece by piece. Handing over a full campaign is folly; you really have to teach people to fish.Delete
I don't know how RPGs' role as a new media form would affect their presentation. A fragmented structure where the pieces may or may not interact is one that makes sense to me. There could also be some similarities to hypertext?
In an alternate world, Fighting Fantasy! would be a post-modernist literature fad with Deep Meaningz instead of a game for young adults. (This world wouldn't be a better one.)
Yes, I think hypertext might be a good example (although I'd argue that all texts are hypertexts in a way ... ). A practical example might be good random tables, where a figment of an idea triggers an impulse that produces something entertaining in the game that wouldn't have been there otherwise (Random Encounter Reaction Table is a very good example, I think). The lack of names in the Keep on the Borderlands might be another good example for exactly that reason?Delete
I've met people who bemoaned the lack of "deep meaning" in role playing games and I never quite understood what they where talking about. Don't carry all stories a deep meaning? It's good stories that explain something about the world one way or another, but that is already deeply rooted in role-playing games and, I think, the reason of the appeal for children. I mean, look how 10 year old grasping the game and the stories they tell! That's as deep as it gets ... and another reason to think about role-playing games as a new medium (or rather, another angle of the subject I didn't explore yet properly, ha!).
As I still have lots of RPG stuff shelved years or even decades ago still waiting to be read, yet alone played, I can feel your pain.ReplyDelete
I guess I see the point in the "too much details" argument, but the very point of having supplements or adventures is to _get_ some details. Anyone can spew out generic content (Red Dragon inn, rats in the cellar, orcs in the woods) ad nauseam, you even have decent online generators for that these days, a telling detail about the degree of originality needed. If I'd have to choose between "emergent" (a nice buzzword for shoveling the burden to the GM's shoulders, and pointing fingers to the missing "chemistry" if things don't work out so great) generalities and the overly detailed or artsy stuff, I'd go for the latter without a doubt. It may be artsy or just quirky for quirkiness's sake, but like decent trash or arthouse cinema, it will never be boring. (Well, artsy cinema CAN be boring at times, but in a whole new, artistic kind of way.)
My experience is that while (most) campaign settings and modules are detailed, it doesn't translate into lots of interesting bits.Delete
Even if you want to steal details, or get some inspiration, it is hard to do when 90% of the material is savage orcs swinging battleaxes, camel rider bandits with turbans (and a vulture god), crypts with skeletons, or spider infested woods.
Obviously not all publications are boring, but it is hard to steal stuff when the module details generic stuff the 100th time. (and most do exaclty this)
I myself am very much guilty of reading modules and supplements and then putting them back on the virtual shelf. I read a lot of game systems and that's fine (even if I don't end up playing them or stealing every good mechanic), but I kinda feel bad for doing the same with modules.ReplyDelete
I slightly disagree with everybody's experience :-) I myself have read a lot and can read a lot. But I cannot read most modules. They bore me to death.ReplyDelete
Also, I have been running open-game worlds since the beginning, and have done so loosely at first. But after a while, it felt too much like cheating and I got heavily into Traveller. Number crunching as much as possible, pre-defining as much as sanely doable. And it was grand. AD&D 1e allows me to have the/that kind of Traveller experience in the realm of Fantasy. And if I check the history of the game, and words of Gary in the DMG it seems, feels, to me I am doing exactly the right thing. Now the OSR with its concentration of the hunt for the "ideal dungeon" or the "most artsy dungeon"...I cannot read most of it. And what I can actually read (Patrick Stuart mostly) I often cannot actually use in the game. The module stuff I actually could use as were select offerings by our host and nearly everything from Gary in his 1e days. I am not entirely sure why that is. But genreating detail is very important to me, tools that allow that I like, tools who tell me it's all just window dressing anyway, I leave by the sides. Yoon-Suin and Vornheim did nothing for me.
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Why, Kent, you look like a statue in search of its pedestal!Delete
It seems to me you are simply too good for these stupid games. Have you considered drinking?
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I won't watch an hour-long video; gaming is not a spectator sport. Looks like a beer-and-pretzels affair. I am guessing they are not sufficiently serious and artful about what they are doing?Delete
Well, that's what D&D has been ever since Gary Gygax (who famously detested artsy gaming) and Dave Arneson (of the balrog janitors), and most of the others except maybe Paul Jaquays (who later defected to Runequest anyway). It is a fairly silly game.
Not to say D&D can't be different. My games are silly in a fairly different way. But the roots of old-school D&D lie in bad puns and jello monsters. Sorry you had to learn it this late in your career. It is not art, except maybe in some marginal sense that's infected with post-modernism.
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That's the point. RPGs are not art in any traditional sense, in the same way playing cards or hunting aren't art either - they are hobbies, pastimes, pursuits... but they are not art. To pass them off as art does neither them, nor art a favour. It is a post-modernist trick which obfuscates differences and demolishes meaning.Delete
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I do believe that the _act_ of gaming may not be art (usually it's not - not even the "artsy" storytelling games that set out to do exactly that), but gaming products and other derivatives (illustrations, modules, even gaming literature in very rare cases) may be.ReplyDelete
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That's actually something that came up in the second post for this blog: http://beyondfomalhaut.blogspot.hu/2016/08/blog-how-do-you-do-fellow-kids.htmlDelete
To recap: forums have clearly been the best for cultivating quality discussion. The best of the general purpose forums was TheRPGsite ca. 2006-2010, while focused forums have come and gone - they tend to last until the participants run out of things to discuss.
Social media (of which I only use G+, and that reluctantly) is a day-to-day communication platform, unsuited for lengthier discussion, and more or less ruled by purple-haired politics both locally and globally. They are also directly harming the rest of the internet, which makes them ethically suspect.
Blogs are sub-par in comparison with forums, but they are what's left.
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Sorry about taking so long to respond to this - it's been a busy week. I strongly agree that if you're writing something that you hope will be used in actual play then playtesting and effective information design are essential, and that RPG materials which lack these things shouldn't try to pass themselves off as being intended for actual use at the table as written.ReplyDelete
I do think there's an important place for material that may be poorly-adapted for use at the table, but which can still improve games indirectly by making them imaginatively and aesthetically richer: I don't believe for a moment that 'Veins of the Earth' or 'Fire on the Velvet Horizon' were playtested in any meaningful sense, but I'm still glad that they exist. But I agree that we should always try to keep actual play front and centre. Otherwise it's all to easy to end up like 1990s White Wolf, writing huge amounts of evocative content, almost all of which is totally useless when it comes to the actual business of running or playing RPGs...
Regarding Veins of the Earth and other such books full of interesting ideas that aren't really "ready" for play: I think they are designed as creativity aids, not creativity replacements, but in a way that is mostly inverse to what Melan describes. For people who are good at mechanics, physical spaces, and other such details but are not good at worldbuilding/mythological sorts of creativity, Veins of the Earth is the best thing they could hope for. It's helpful in some of the same ways that Yoon-Suin is helpful. It's kind of like a book of writing prompts but for a GM. (I've read it but not used it. I plan to eventually use it in combination with Skerples' posts about it which do a lot to make it usable in the way Melan describes.)Delete
For me, Yoon-Suin, the Tome of Adventure Design, and the Veins of the Earth are all very useful books that function as idea generators. They don't need to rely on having been tested in actual play as much as other kinds of material do. (Despite that, I don't doubt that Veins of the Earth would become a gold standard of perfect books if it was playtested, more carefully edited, and supplemented with material from Skerples, particularly his hexcrawl. It would be magnitudes better if it was readily usable for less experienced GMs.)